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Commentary: Receiving Communion never a private matter; common good is at stake

The following column by Robert Aaron Wessman of Glenmary Home Missioners appeared in a recent issue of America Magazine

By Robert Aaron Wessman

for America Magazine

How do I respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? When working through this question, my default – and I am more than a little ashamed of this – was to think about myself. Only after this did I, rather sheepishly, consider the greater good of my religious community, my family, society and the most vulnerable. As vicar general of a missionary order in the Catholic Church, my behavior was sometimes wanting, but I was probably not alone in wrestling with a self-centered response to a universal peril.

What I find spiritually and intellectually intriguing about the pandemic is how much effort has been required to shift thinking from a concern for one’s own safety, health or principles to how one’s actions affect others. Thinking about the common good, and specifically about the vulnerable, has not been a habitus, and for many of us it has required concerted, persistent and painstaking efforts.

One would hope that after more than a year of the pandemic, we as a society and we as a Church would be better equipped to place the concerns of the community before our own as individuals. But considering some of the debate around the U.S. bishops’ “Eucharistic Coherence” document, I am not convinced that this lesson has been sufficiently learned.

For example, in an article in The Atlantic head-lined “The Real Threat to American Catholicism,” Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, editor-at-large for Commonweal magazine, writes: “The Church has many rules about what Catholics should or should not do to receive Communion worthily, but observing them is typically a private matter” [my emphasis].

The irony of the editor-at-large of a magazine called Commonweal arguing for a “private” under-standing of the reception of Communion is not likely to be lost on readers. But in fairness, reception of the Eucharist does require a consideration that is some-what personal (“private” is not the word I would have chosen). There is knowledge of one’s interior moral life that only an individual has access to, and in this sense, there is something personal about discerning one’s worthiness to receive Communion. Yet is this all that is at stake with the reception of Communion, a word that itself points to considerations beyond the personal?

Deviation, in word or action, from the community’s teaching on faith and morals, especially if it is publicly known, the bishops note, requires one not to receive Communion for the sake of the community.

In Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, the theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J., comes close to saying that there is nothing private at all about the experience of receiving Communion. Referring to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, he notes: “True Eucharistic piety, therefore, is no devout individualism. It is ‘unmindful of nothing that concerns the good of the Church.’ ” This is a far cry from “typically a private matter.”

De Lubac, writing in 1947, felt the need to respond to the critique that Christians had become too individualistic in practice and in the articulation of their theology. He acknowledged the validity of the critique and wanted to correct the mistake. As he states: “We [Christians] are accused of being individualists even in spite of ourselves, by the logic of our faith, whereas in reality Catholicism is essentially social. It is social in the deepest sense of the word: not merely in its applications in the field of natural institutions but, first and foremost, in itself, in the heart of its mystery, in the essence of its dogma. It is social in a sense which would have made the expression “social Catholicism” redundant.

Resurrecting a communal understanding of nearly every aspect of church life, de Lubac was specifically concerned with the sacraments: “Since the sacraments are the means of salvation they should be understood as instruments of unity. As they make real, renew or strengthen man’s union with Christ, by that very fact they make real, renew or strengthen his union with the Christian community. […] That is the constant teaching of the Church, though it must be confessed that in practice it is too little known.”

Perhaps this is why in their 2006 document on the Eucharist, the U.S. bishops go to great lengths to develop a communally conscious understanding of the Eucharist. Titled “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper,” the document states the importance of conscience in discerning worthiness to receive Communion but also presumes that one’s conscience is formed “in accordance with the Church’s teaching” – that is, by a community.

As the document says, the community is to be considered – especially those whose faith is vulnerable – so that a situation does not occur wherein unworthy reception of Communion would give rise to public scandal, possibly resulting in undermining unity, weakening faith or causing another person to sin.

Ultimately, as the bishops argue, the Eucharist invites Christians to 1) consider their responsibility to the community before reception, 2) strengthen solidarity with the community upon reception and 3) propel one to serve the community after reception, going from the church to work for justice with, and for, the world.

Thinking about community and the common good is not a default position in contemporary America. And yet, just as the pandemic has revealed aspects of the individualism endemic to our culture, perhaps it has also raised awareness of the need, especially in life-and-death matters, to think about others, to return to communal thinking and to consider one’s actions in light of the most vulnerable. As with the pandemic, so it is with the Eucharist, for Communion cannot be a private matter.

Considering the community, especially the most vulnerable who are affected by our actions, is one of the most important things we can do before, during and after reception. Hopefully, in further consideration of Eucharistic coherence, this is not forgotten.

Robert Aaron Wessman, G.H.M., is the first vice-president (vicar general) and director of formation for the Glenmary Home Missioners, and has served in these roles since 2019.

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